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Resistance Training for Elite-Level Track Cyclists

Parsons, Brentan CSCS

Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2010 - Volume 32 - Issue 5 - p 63-68
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181e97d97


Physical Preparation Department, Victorian Institute of Sport, Melbourne, Australia

Brentan Parsons

is a physical preparation coach studying for his Masters of Exercise Science (Strength and Conditioning) at Edith Cowan University (Perth, Western Australia) while working at the Victorian Institute of Sport.

First, it is important to understand the sport of sprint track cycling. For this article, we are looking at the events of the flying 200-m sprint, the Keirin, and the teams sprint. All 3 are Olympic events and are characterized by their high-intensity maximal strength/power efforts. The flying 200-m sprint is a 1,000-m event whereby the first 2 laps are warm up for the flying 200-m sprint. The athlete aims to travel at maximal velocity at the 200-m start mark and tries to hold this pace to the finish line. The time is recorded for the flying 200 m and is used to rank competitors. This “qualification round,” which is done individually, is repeated so that the athlete is seeded for the races from 2 trials. The all-out maximal effort usually lasts between 12-second and low 10-second mark for female cyclists and between high 10-second through the high 9-second mark for elite male athletes similar to a 100-m track and field sprint. Once the athlete is seeded, he/she races over the same distance against an inversely seeded racer over 3 races if needed. Depending on the field, competition, and classification, the athlete may have to repeat the racing numerous times, which may include back-to-back races up to 3 races during the day or over a few days, thus high-intensity repeatability is essential to the track cyclist, especially one with a full program. Smaller competitions or carnivals can be crammed into 1 or 2 days or in the case of world cups or Olympics games are lengthened to accommodate several days of racing, so the rest and recovery is dependent on number of events, number of competitors, and how full a program an individual rider chooses to ride.

In the Keirin, approximately 6-8 riders are paced behind a motorcycle for a few laps until the speed has risen from 20 km/h to 50 km/h; this usually occurs around 600-700 m from the finish. As soon as the motorcycle leaves the track, it is a sprint until the finish. This popular Japanese form of track cycling is characterized by daring racing and numerous crashes. The sprint lasts a little longer than the flying 200 m and dictated a little more by tactics rather than an all-out sprint; however, sprints can last up to around 40 seconds.

The teams sprint is a 3-lap all-out sprint raced between 2 teams of 3 riders. After each lap, the leading rider from each team leaves the race by going up the embankment until the last remaining rider is left to cross the finish line. The physical requirements for the race differ between the 3 individual athletes, and this can affect the type of track and resistance training undertaken. The starter needs to have good raw explosive strength and speed strength to push a large gear from a stationary start, and the second and third riders need more speed strength and, to a lesser extent, speed endurance to maintain the high output over an extended period around the 30-second mark.

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Explosive starts demand maximal strength contractions to reduce the time to top speed. Athletes at the elite level gain an advantage by being able to ride a bigger gear and not lose out on acceleration and time to top speed. By riding a bigger gear, the torque can be increased if the same speed is maintained over a competitor riding a smaller chain gear to gain an advantage over a less physically gifted rider/team.

The power output or watts is used as a measure of the body's rapid force production through the legs and into the pedals. This is measured by a Schoberer Rad Messtechnik, SRM, crank (Julich, Germany), which is a transducer built into the bike cranks to measure the forces put through onto the pedals. With this system, strength and conditioning coaches can gain a greater appreciation of the work the athlete does in training. This also is used to measure the efficacy of a strength and conditioning program and may assist in workload quantification. Depending on the level of the athlete and the event undertaken, Martin et al. suggested values for track cycling in excess of 2,000 watts for men and 1,200 watts for women in a 200-m sprint. As the length of race increases, the force represented in watts decreases because of the body's inability to maintain high power outputs (3). Overall, body strength, speed strength, and rate of force development (RFD) are essential here, and generally, the strongest team member will lead out the team sprint event. Resistance training exercises used to gain general lower-body strength in this area are squats, deadlifts, single-legged squats, and single-legged 45° leg press among numerous other exercises. These exercises are primarily used to build mass and strength to the gluteus and front and back kinetic chains. The power component with explosive starts needs to have a greater emphasis on speed strength of stretch shortening cycle (SSC), so a greater weight is used to the detriment of speed; however; this is necessary for starting. Commonly used exercises to develop the power of this component is single-leg 45° leg press throws (an explosive single-leg power exercise undertaken where the foot actually comes off the platform in the full-extension position on a Calgym [Caloundra, Queensland, Australia] leg press that has an elongated shaft rail to accommodate greater range of movement), clean pulls, high pulls, power cleans, and other weightlifting-based exercises. These exercises would commonly be done at 60-70% of 1 repetition maximum (RM) to develop the strength qualities of the power movement (5). These exercises have been shown over many years to increase power in strength/power athletes, and track cycling is no different in its requirements of these necessary trainable qualities (1).

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Jumping or getting a jump on an opponent is a rapid acceleration at an opportune time or a predesignated position in a race. This rapid acceleration is once again a combination of strength and power of the lower limbs, derived primarily from the glutei and assisted by the hamstrings and quadriceps. Strength training exercises used for this component are typical with that of the explosive start. The power component of getting a jump is generally made at speed, so great forces or initial strength are not necessarily important. What is important is speed and contractile qualities of the athlete's SSC to rapidly increase the force and rate of force over a short period to gain the advantage necessary to pull the attack. Thus, with this component of track cycling, the power element of the SSC needs to be developed. For these power movements, the athlete's requirements are speed and strength with a focus on speed (5). Resistance training exercises to train these movements would include high box jumps anything from 20 cm to 1 m or more, hops for distance, double- and single-legged jumps for height/distance, and various weightlifting lifts with the emphasis on lighter weights and greater speed. A general guideline on this would be 30% of 1RM of weightlifting exercises to reflect the speed and quick contractile properties trained in relation to the nature of the movements (1).

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The holding position relates to all 3 disciplines and is the aerodynamic position that the athletes assume when he/she is going at or near top pace. This position requires good overall body functional flexibility while maintaining a very strong streamlined fixed position. If there is excessive movement through the arms, midsection, hips, or feet, power and in turn time and races are lost. For the athlete to be in an aerodynamic position, the thoracic spine needs to be flexible but strong enough to hold position. The musculature of the upper body, that is, major pushing and pulling muscles need to be strong and balanced with also strong grip strength to deal with the excessive body torsion forces that are applied from the hips and upper body to the handle bar. The glutei need to be flexible and strong to deal with anterior/posterior and lateral forces demanded from track cycling and in particular this position. Resistance exercises to help keep the holding position are developed by working on specific areas of the whole body and have been highlighted in full in the rationale section of this article (6,10).

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The physiological demands of track cycling are important considerations when planning resistance training programs. The strength and conditioning coach needs to understand the specific physiological requirements of all track events even at the developmental stage of programming. Without this understanding, the athlete may omit some important sequential adaptations necessary for high-intensity RFD and enhancement of the SSC. As track cycling is a sprint-based sport and most high-intensity efforts last between 10 and 40 seconds, PCr (phosphocreatine) and the glycolytic lactic are the 2 major energy systems used (12). The PCr system is characterized by high output lasting from 0 to around 10 seconds and can be resynthesized in around 2 minutes, with full resynthesis in approximately 7 minutes; this is predominantly used in the flying 200-m sprint (12). The glycolytic lactic energy system on the other hand kicks in where the PCr system leaves off. It lasts from approximately 10 seconds through to 40/45 seconds depending on athlete's trainability and variation (7). The glycolytic system is suited to the Keirin and team sprint because the race is longer in duration, around 40/45 seconds, but the energy provided is no where near as high as the PCr system but is significantly higher than the aerobic system. The aerobic system needs to be trained to allow for good recovery from single bouts/efforts, numerous training bouts, and competition but is generally left to the technical coach to develop (10). All 3 systems will be trained on the track, but the strength and conditioning coach needs to understand these specific requirements and train these parameters in an organized order in the gym (12).

The musculoskeletal requirements center on the powerhouse of the human body-the glutei. Without strong and well-developed gluteus muscles, the athlete cannot generate the forces necessary for world-class performance. A strong back kinetic chain, including the calves, hamstrings and glutei, is paramount to transfer the cumulative forces from this “chain” of muscles through the pedals down the cranks to power the bike. A strong front chain, inclusive of the hip flexors, quadriceps and tibialis anterior, is also important to assist and balance the forces generated from the hips to make sure that the force is transferred with correct technique. The midsection or “core” of the body needs to remain rigid during the race because excessive movement through hips, midsection, or upper body results in form loss, power loss, lack of aerodynamic qualities, and, in turn, loss in time. The upper body needs to be strong to deal with the forces generated from the hips and the rotational forces generated from the upper body in starting. Without a strong and compliant upper body and lower body, the cyclist may need to reduce his/her chain ring to a lower size to allow the forces necessary to propel him/her from the starting position in the sprint and into race speed with minimum stress (6,10).

Track cycling athletes need a full range of resistance training protocols to achieve their training goals. The program at times concentrates on basic muscle, tendon, ligament, skeletal, and joint adaptations such as hypertrophy. This increases the muscle's cross-sectional area and can also increase the fiber density, which is of importance to generating strength. Strength or the total amount of force is also an essential part of track cycling resistance training. This training develops not only the musculotendinous structures but also the nervous system, which is a driver of high-intensity performance. As strength has been closely correlated to improved power, this component of the resistance training program is well used (13). Power training is the third major training component and is defined as work (force times distance) divided by time or force multiplied by speed. Therefore, it would make sense that as power is a significant component of track cycling, the development of power would be the driving force behind the resistance-based training. Some of the techniques used to develop power are as follows (2,11).

  • Maximal strength
  • High load power
  • Low load power
  • Complex training
  • SSC or plyometrics and jumps
  • Weightlifting
  • Combinations of weightlifting exercises

Core stability, as listed earlier, is a notion that pops up regularly in strength and conditioning circles and journals. Although limited data exist on its efficacy (14), it is widely acknowledged among professionals that a strong and functional midsection will provide a compliant link between upper and lower extremities and vice versa. The VIS cycling working definition of core stability is a reflection of the midsection and pelvis and the working relationship of these areas with the muscular and neural systems that support it. Thus, inner core combining the deep abdominal musculature, outer core using the more superficial gross movement musculature, and pelvic lateral stability work together as a midsectional troika. Thus, exercises other than prescriptive one to alleviate issues are not the focus of the program but exercises to assist the overall function of being an elite track cyclist. The most important musculature of the core group is the gluteus. These factors contribute to the overall efficient and strong functioning of the center of the body (4).

Balance and spatial awareness are important trainable qualities of the track cycling conditioning process. Although limited research data exist on specific benefits of nonspecific gym-based balance and body awareness training, the coaches and, more specifically, the athletes have noticed benefits from these forms of training. Kahle and Gribble (4) found that balance and core stability exercises do have a function in dynamic postural movement and thus could be extrapolated out to sport performance. Further research is needed to quantify the perceived benefits of this component of track cycling resistance training (4).

Flexibility and range of motion through joints, be it dynamic in the physical preparation warm-up or static and yoga based, make up a significant element of the development of elite-level track athletes. It is through a process of musculoskeletal screen that determines certain muscle and ligamentous limitations or over usage. A close coordination between physical preparation and medical professionals ensures verification and quantification of screen values. The screening and rescreening of athletes can serve as a valuable quantification tool to measure the effectiveness of the physical preparation program (8,10).

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The process of elite track cycling resistance training planning starts with the initial phase of collating information.

  1. Talking to the coach about the athlete's history, stage of development, and specific short- and long-term goals.
  2. Talking to the athlete and asking about perceived strengths, weaknesses, goals, and training history.
  3. Liaising with medical staff about athlete's medical history, injuries, and limitations.
  4. Organizing a musculoskeletal screen of the athlete to gauge a starting point with which to progress athlete.

Let us assume that we are working with a 17-year-old male targeted elite sprint track athlete. With a reference point of working with this population over many years, let us explore through a sample of the restrictions and limitations that are typical of this athlete.

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The developmental athlete has had limited high-intensity training, be it on the track or in the gym. The coach suggests that the athlete is 3-5 years away from elite-level international competition (world cups and Olympics). Short-term goals introduce more intensity into training and start a resistance training program that addresses the screen and moves the athlete's strength and power development.

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Athlete has limited strength training and generally goes from season to season racing various types of cycling from track endurance to some criterion racing to even endurance type road racing.

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No real injuries other than tight mid and lower back issues that require physiotherapy from time to time.

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Has tight/overdeveloped quadriceps, iliotibial band/tensor fascia latae, and hamstrings.

Tight: hip flexors, glutei including medius and piriformis, quadratus lumborum, and thoracic spine.

Weak: calves, tibialis anterior, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, deep transversus abdominis, multifidus, and scapular control including rhomboids, external rotators, serratus anterior.

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The rationale for the program is an important part of being an elite strength and conditioning coach. If the professional cannot provide well thought through answers and direction for the program, then how is he/she going to explain to the athlete or coach. The following exercises address the screen and lay the foundation for increased improvements in strength, power, flexibility, and staying injury free across the initial 2 program stage. The main focus of the early programs within track cycling is enabling the body to function properly and without hindrance. The musculoskeletal screen highlights some of the static joint issues/potential problems and a dynamic movement screen, which looks at movement patterns, and potential movement limitations can be administered by the strength and conditioning coach. Common screening can include single- legged stance, single-legged balance, single-legged squat, and general shoulder mechanics. The areas highlighted in the above listed musculoskeletal screen are the most commonly highlighted restrictions within this athletic population. The direction taken after these programs is driven by the adaptations in the athlete.

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  • Dumbbell and bench press-general upper-body strength with a focus on pectorals and anterior shoulder and elbow extensors.
  • Supine pull-ups and bench pulls-general upper-body strength with a focus on latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, middle trapezius, elbow flexors, and forearm flexors/extensors.
  • Thoracic spine mobility-yoga block thoracic spine.
  • Spatial awareness and whole body flexibility-down face dog pose.
  • Shoulder compliance-dumbbell serratus press (serratus anterior and scapula stability), handstands (shoulder compliance), cable external rotations (shoulder external rotators and shoulder stability).
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  • Stability ball side and twists (outer core-obliques and rectus abdominis).
  • Transversus activations (inner core transversus abdominis and multifidus).
  • Arabesque pose, glute-ham sequence, and ankle/knee clams (hip stability-gluteus maximus and medius, postural and body awareness, balance and the relationship between ankle, knee and hip) (9).
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  • Flexibility-wall hip flexor quad, wall glutei and piriformis, foam roller/Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL), self massage.
  • Hip/upper-body stability-overhead squats.
  • Similar strength/power exercises to starting position and jump position. The rationale has been discussed earlier.
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The first progression of the resistance program starts with addressing the screen and testing out the deficiencies. This may be overlooked by many practitioners, but simply, it deals with current issues and avoids overloading a vulnerable body. As you would not overload a particular joint/area too soon after injury, for example, sprints, hops, or heavy squats 1-week after hamstring strain, the same theory applies if an athlete has clearly identified musculoskeletal issues (6). From there, depending on the specific athlete's needs, the loading can take place. The type of strategy used depends on the phase of the season/year the athlete is currently in and the hierarchy of needs, which is generally coach driven. I tend to use a concurrent system where most, if not all, physical requirements are trained within each strength session and each program or phase emphasizes a specific parameter. This allows for progressive development and complements the strength/power high-intensity training focus on the track. The events and competitions the coach and athlete wish to peak for will dictate whether a taper period before competition is necessary. As the requirements for strength and power are consistently high, a taper period for big competitions lasts between 1 and 2 weeks. This occurs by gradually dropping the volume but maintaining the intensity of the program. Younger athletes may train through competitions and peak once for national championships, and older experienced athletes may have many mini peaks because their schedule encompasses national championships (early February) and several world cup races (October-January). With the increased travel of world cup events, some athletes undertake a strength maintenance program to keep current strength measures, race and deal with the rigors of international travel. These specific modifications are athlete and coach driven and cater to the current physical development of the athlete.

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How often the athlete should undertake resistance training is always a contentious issue. For the initial program where the changes are working on flexibility, balance, and hip/core stability, it is recommended that the program be done 3-5 times per week. Once the athlete reaches the second program and the coach assessment of the athlete deems that he/she has successfully addressed some of the highlighted deficiencies, then the program should be done 3 times per week, generally with a day away from the gym in between. This is very dependent on the technical coach; however, some coaches do allow resistance training in the morning followed by afternoon track sessions-but this is factored into the periodized cycle of training and generally cannot be maintained for extended periods during intense periods of training. All the above recommendations are on the proviso of the workload fitting in with the cycling technical coach's periodized schedule and the athlete's requirements. During heavy and intense blocks of track training sessions, the strength training component may be reduced to 2 sessions per week; however, this would not occur for too many weeks because strength and power training is such an important part of sprint cycling. A good working relationship among the coach, athlete, and strength and conditioning coach is important to allow for the workload quantification and periodization of the program. Workload quantification is essential to understand adaptations to training and measures of fatigue, which becomes invaluable in a highly demanding sport such as track cycling.

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The program is evaluated every session when the athlete is monitored by the strength and conditioning coach; however, the following is a guide of useful evaluation techniques. A rescreen is invaluable and is necessary depending on the rate of change/adaptation seen by the practitioner. Everyone develops at their own rate, but as a general rule, a rescreen is necessary between 3 and 6 months to fully allow for the changes to take place. If possible, use the same medical practitioner/physiotherapist to ensure validity.

When the athlete has progressed to more “typical” strength training exercises after around 6 months, the following tests are beneficial to ensure athlete progression.

  • Squat 3RM and 1RM
  • Bench press and bench pull 3RM and 1RM
  • Single-leg 45° leg press 3RM and 1RM
  • Single-leg 45° leg press throws-power recorded
  • Power clean 3RM
  • Using a force platform-RFD, ground contact time, and power output from jump squat at body weight, 30% 3RM, and 60% 3RM (dependent on access to force platform).

Note bene- 3RM and 1RM are used for different reasons. Younger athletes generally undertake the 3RM testing protocols because of the intensity and sometimes complexity of movements. 3RM and 1RM are used later to ascertain increases in general strength and total maximal strength for power output, as well as planning and preparation for the next cycle of work.

Testing is measured under the National Sport Science Quality Assurance (Australia) testing guidelines, and values are checked to historical values for elite-level track cycling. This information is used to ascertain strength and power outputs with reference to current elite cyclists and past champions within the context of the athlete's current training age. This information is critical in the planning for sequential development of the athlete and progression in physical preparation.

Table Deve

Table Deve

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Undertaking any form of resistance training for sport is about developing athletically and, most importantly, enhancing performance. It should become very clear that staying injury free, increasing strength/power, and developing flexibility are essential requirements of an elite track cyclist. There is limited research into specific resistance programming for track cycling, but using the basic tenets of strength/power development and understanding the requirements of the sport and individual are fundamental for track cycling resistance training programming. The specifics of resistance program periodization are dependent on the individual, the current track workload, competition, and training age thus was not a consideration within the context of this article and would constitute specific individual topics for further discussion. In concluding, by following the fundamentals of physical preparation and athlete progression by individualization, the sequential, safe, and injury free strength pathways can be coached for elite track cycling performance.

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cycling; resistance training

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